For more than 600 years, Seoul has been the capital and center of South Korea. Roughly half of the country’s population lives in and around the city, and almost all government ministries have long been centered there. This concentration begat congestion, and after he was sworn in as president in 2003, the now-deceased Roh Moo-Hyun devised a plan to relocate many of the government’s hundreds of offices. The moves would disperse people throughout the country and, not insignificantly, push critical ministries out of Seoul and farther away from the border with North Korea, which is just a 35-mile missile ride away.
And while many ministries are being relocated to locations chosen pragmatically—maritime agencies moved to the port city of Busan, for instance—the Korean government is replicating the benefits of concentrated government by relocating more than 40 of them to a brand new administrative capital 75 miles to the south of Seoul called Sejong City.
Much like the experimental architecture and urban planning of purpose-built capitals like Brasília, Brazil, or Canberra, Australia, the design of Sejong City is perhaps the largest test of a new approach to citymaking—one that here starts with landscape architecture. The city’s competition-winning master plan was designed by a team including Balmori Associates, the New York–based landscape architecture firm run by Diana Balmori, who worked in concert with the Korean firm Haeahn Architecture and its New York subsidiary H Architecture. A grid of streets and transit runs through the center of the city, but amid and over that street-level framework, the plan weaves a network of green spaces dictated by the contours of the land, once hilly but now flattened to make way for as many as 500,000 future residents.
The centerpiece of the 667-acre plan and of the city itself is the government building. Despite the dozens of ministries and agencies and offices relocated to Sejong City, the plan—and the logic of the city itself—is built around one large building. Balmori calls it the city’s superstructure, and it is more landscape than architecture. Through a series of sloping walkways, wide-open expanses, ramps and corridors, the superstructure is an interconnected green space winding about two miles in length and rising six stories high in places. It’s like a long, wet noodle that slipped out of a bowl and onto a tabletop. It’s both smooth and crooked. The government offices are contained beneath it.
“It’s a very unusual building in the sense that it has its open space built into it,” Balmori says. “The superstructure in itself controls the building.” The six-floor height limit was a deliberate choice, but it’s something of an anomaly—Balmori notes that most of what’s been built in Korea since the 1960s have been towers. On the outskirts of Sejong City, where residential towns are being built, towers stand like dominoes, proximate but disconnected. “There are no buildings that unify the ground floor, and it all feels as if it’s hanging out in space,” Balmori says. “[In the town center], we wanted something that was continuous and gave shape to the space, but that also would give the feeling that the city was very accessible.”
The city has been under construction since 2006, though politics delayed most of the work until 2010. Balmori says the city is currently about 80 percent complete, and should be finished by the end of 2015. Outside of the central governmental complex, the rest of the city’s buildings have been designed by other firms. The plan is guiding that growth to emphasize the role that landscape can play in cleaning water and reducing energy use. Balmori originally intended it to be what she calls a “zero city,” where all water would be treated and reused locally and all energy would be created on site. The energy approach wasn’t adopted, but Balmori says the plan nonetheless proves landscape can be the basis of an environmentally considerate new city.
“It didn’t really take shape until last year. I couldn’t see how many of the ideas were going to come through,” she says. “And then last year, ‘Wow.’ I just felt so exhilarated standing on that roof and saying, ‘My god, they actually followed the things we said.’ It felt so enormous.” —Nate Berg